Jess Leigh’s path as a jewelry artist has always been propelled by self-education. While working at in a boutique in Jacksonville, Florida, she started designing jewelry because her friend commissioned her to duplicate an expensive bracelet she spotted in a boutique. “I was always the crafty friend,” Leigh says. Having learned the ropes of a small business from her boutique job, and with friends’ requests increasing, she began to build her business. After moving to New Orleans in 2010, Jess Leigh Jewels – Leigh’s line of handmade jewelry that prominently features gemstones – was born.
It was the move to New Orleans that inspired her to want to continue to educate herself and turn her hobby into a full-time job.
“When I first moved here and went to an art market, it kind of dawned on me that … with this powerful culture that supports the arts, I might be able to do this full-time,” she says.
“When I looked around, I started thinking about all the other things I wanted to learn how to make, and I realized that I could afford to learn more and really expand and broaden the scope of what I was making.”
Leigh started to teach herself wire-wrapping, gemstone-wrapping and chain work – skills that are the foundation of her line today. She describes her line’s style as “casual with a little bit of sparkle,” which is reflected in her personal style. “I’ve always been the girl who would wear a party dress with sneakers,” she says. Some of her pieces feature glittering stones and other eye-catching, glamorous elements, while others have more of a patina.
Gemstones and crystals are the focus of many pieces here: Bracelets, earrings, necklaces and rings feature onyx, glittering geodes, amber and different types of quartz. Some pieces are simple, like an elegant teardrop gem pendant, others, like a cocktail ring with a large, jagged amethyst druzy, make more of a statement.
While there is no one piece that embodies the eclectic line, Leigh’s favorite stone to work with is labradorite. She wears the crystal every day and sells pieces featuring it the most.
“It’s probably because I like to talk to about it so much,” she says. “It’s very similar to moonstone in that when you move it around it changes color. It just reminds me of space and it’s beautiful.”
Many ascribe powers to crystals and gems – labradorite is said to awaken one’s magical abilities. But even if you’re not sold on mysticism, Leigh says these gems can serve as a “reminder” of the qualities the gems are said to inspire. She sources all her materials in the U.S, and her gems come providers mostly in Arkansas and North Carolina she has built relationships with.
The next step of Leigh’s evolution as an artist is to incorporate metal casting in her line. A culmination of some jewelry-making and metal-smithing classes she attended, continued education helps Leigh develop as an artist and helps her offer more to customers. “Education is great to give a customer who’s asking about how things are made,” she says.
She finds a lot of support in the local artisan community; she sells her jewelry online at JessLeighJewels.com and in local boutiques, but you can often find her at the Frenchmen Art Market.
“As far as the community of artists here, you can’t go to an art market and not make a friend. I’m next to different people all the time, and we are all like-minded. It’s amazing the amount of support there is: Although you’re all trying to win the consumer’s money, when one person does well, usually everyone does well, and I think everyone gets that,” she says.
“Artists inherently are nervous; ‘I’m gonna put this thing out there I made and I think it’s great, but what if nobody else does?’ When someone buys it, or tells you how much they like it, it kind of just reaffirms that you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing and that… it’s all worth that struggle and stress and hustle.”
For Leigh, New Orleans inspires her not so much with images – you won’t see a fleur de lis in her line – but a general feeling of support and experimentation. “A lot of my designs don’t reflect simply New Orleans: it’s just the inspiration to do more, make more and see how it turns out.”
For more information, jessleighjewels.com